Yoga offers much more than postures for the body. The dense volumes that contain the texts of Yoga philosophy are rich with wisdom. On the tree of Yoga the Postures are only one branch. The question becomes: “If Yoga Asana is but a branch, what are the roots of the Tree of Yoga?”
The Roots of the Tree are called The Yamas; they address how one should interact with the World. These precepts provide a basis for the ethical foundation of Yoga. The 5 axioms, classified as Yamas, are steeped in centuries of rational investigation of the truths of being, knowledge, & conduct.
The five Yamas are Ahimsa, Asteya, Satya, Asparigraha, & Brachmacharya.
Ahimsa, non- harming, speaks to the ideal of non-violence. Ahimsa is most well known as the philosophy of Ghandi, who rallied his countrymen for independence using non-violent protests in the face of Imperialist aggression. However, Ahimsa is also relevant in the moments when one attempts to force oneself into a physical posture, mental space, or emotional state. The use of force equates to the use of violence. Once I learned what Ahimsa meant, it was easy to identify the many places in my life where I failed to act non-violently. The dozens of times I was in Yoga class and consciously pulled myself more deeply into a forward fold, risking a slipped disk. The awkward moments I forced myself to remain in an uncomfortable social situation when I could have left. Ahimsa provides much needed perspective for Americans who are accustomed to forcing themselves to keep working, exercising, doing and socializing.
Asteya, non-stealing is rather self-explanatory. Yet, it is the nuances that are worth noting. Taking something that is not yours is stealing, even when what is being taken is an intangible resource. Time is one of the most highly stolen intangibles. Stealing Time is easy, especially if one is unaware of what is happening. Have you ever been late on purpose to a meeting? Kept someone on the phone longer, so you could keep talking about your problems? If you answered yes to any of the previous questions then you have stolen Time. Our desires cause us to act impetuously, which can result in the mindless theft of tangible or intangible resources so that we can get what we want. The principle of non-stealing calls on us to apply a macro perspective to our actions so as to recognize and put aside our immediate wants, only then can we be sure we are acting with Asteya.
Satya, is the principle of Truthfulness. Truthfulness can be mistaken for the idea that you must be brutally honest all the time. B.K.S. Iyengar said it best, “We should not use truth as a club with which to beat other people…Truth has got to be tempered with social grace.” Speak and live your truth, but do so with compassion. As a child I prided myself on being blunt, I ran about volunteering my opinion with no tact or filter. I wrote off those who were offended by my words as thin-skinned. As I aged I realized that speaking your truth does not mean volunteering unfiltered commentary on what is observed, but rather to speak truth is to use your voice to clarify and edify for the overall empowerment of those in your environment.
Asparigraha, non-attachment, is one of the most challenging Yamas. In American Society we are programmed to cling to what we desire. The most common example is that of the woman who meets a guy at a bar, and gives him her phone number. If the woman proceeds to check her phone every 5 minutes for the next few days, it is clear that she is clinging to her desired outcome. However, if the woman continues without concern for whether the man will call her, then she is operating in a space of non-attachment. Attachment results in suffering. When we cease to cling to expected outcomes, embrace being present, and act without an agenda we are operating in a space of Asparigraha.
Brachmacharaya relates to self-control. In our high consumption society self-control is invaluable, because we are incessantly bombarded with stimuli that arouses our desire to consume. Our country’s mantras are “Bigger is Better” and “One can never have too much”, as a result we are encouraged to ignore our impulses to act with self-control. Empowering ourselves to act with restraint allows us to have control over our desires, so that our desires are not dictating our behavior. Choosing to act with self-control will always minimize the inevitable suffering caused by excess and impulsive decisions.
It is my hope that this brief exploration of the Yamas, illuminates some of the key fundamentals of Yoga philosophy for you. Dare to explore these rich roots and see where you may be able to grow.